Saira and Ingrina embark on a multi-day Slow Ways adventure through the beautiful and mysterious Scottish Highlands. Things don’t go as planned…
Last autumn, Ingrina and I planned to go on a wild camping trip somewhere in the Scottish Highlands. After going backwards and forwards with suggestions for a time and place, we agreed to check Slow Ways close to Fort William, a landscape Ingrina has a great love for and connection to. I couldn’t wait…
A month prior to our trip, I went on a city break to Glasgow with my sister. Embarrassingly, this was my first visit to Scotland. I fell in love with the city – the people, the places, the culture. On the trip my sister (a regular visitor to Glasgow), much to my dismay, banned me from walking Slow Ways. This is a city break, she said, no hiking! We ended up walking more than ten miles every day anyway. I was disappointed; I had especially wanted to check the Slow Ways routes from Ayr to Prestwick and from Prestwick to Troon. (I’m defo planning on going back to check them, without my sister). The thought of returning to Scotland, to an area I’d never visited solely to walk Slow Ways brought me great joy!
This was to be my first trip to the Highlands and my first experience of wild camping. As departure time approached, I was as excited as I was anxious. Excited, as I’d always wanted to visit the highlands of Scotland, to explore the wild mysterious mountainous landscape and to adventure with someone whose walking prowess I much admire. Anxious as I was still recovering from a bad cold, a relentless cough and I was about to start my period. The thought of trudging across peaks under the hot sun with a heavy pack turned my stomach.
On the first day of our trip, we got the train from Glasgow to Tyndrum. The sun beamed down and we hiked from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy. We passed by highland cattle and chatted to other hikers we passed on the way. There’s nothing quite like the camaraderie on the trail. When we arrived at Bridge of Orchy, we set up camp by the river and enjoyed kimchi noodles and tea, before setting off on a sunset wandering down an unnamed path to a magical loch.
I didn’t sleep a wink.
My cough kept me up, a feeling of cold in my bones, painful cramps and unwanted guests: a throng of midges, not to mention disconcerting rustling noises outside my tent. I felt embarrassed of my humanness, my fear and my pain. At the first light, I left the tent and wandered around. The sun was rising, steam rose up from the river, the moon gleamed. It was a beautiful scene.
We’d planned to push on in the morning. Instead (and possibly for the first time in my life) I listened to my body. I sheepishly told Ingrina that I wasn’t up for the next leg and that I didn’t think I could camp another night. Good-naturedly (but visibly disappointed) she told me it was ok. I booked us a room in Fort William and we got a bus from outside the pub at Tyndrum. It was a scenic bus route, which whizzed through all the wild and wondrous areas we were going to slowly hike across, the dramatic passes, and rugged expanses. I felt guilty, but immensely relieved.
When we got to Fort William, we dropped off our bags and had lunch. We then set off for the first leg of a Slow Ways walk from Fort William to Kinlochleven. Ingrina had already done most of it, just missing the last part. It was a local route that connected to the West Highland Way, offering amazing views over Loch Linnhe. Once we arrived at the spot where the Slow Way joined the West Highland Way, we made our way back via a stream near Ben Nevis. We sat on a bench briefly and watched as people ascended and descended the mountain. The trail was busy with all kinds of walkers; youth groups, groups of friends, solo hikers.
We checked into the hotel for a rest before wandering along the Great Glen Way. Ingrina told me the route was easy, so I was up for it. In fact, the more I walked, the better I felt. It was a beautiful trail. It felt like a Slow Way. In contrast to the West Highland Way, it took in towns and roads, footbridges and lochs. We stopped by a ship at twilight, looking out at the moody mountains, and sat for a bit before we started the journey back. As we returned, the sky darkened and it began pouring down with heavy, warm, rain. It reminded me of the monsoon rains from my childhood. For me, it was one of the highlights of the trip: I experienced the notoriously changeable Scottish weather and it was glorious. Back at the hotel, we dried off and called it a day. It had been a long day of wandering – aimless, purposeful, wholly satisfying.
Each trail represented a beginning of a much bigger journey. I’ve not done much trail walking; in some ways it feels like the antithesis of Slow Ways, which uses lesser-known footpaths. I’m more used to walking in edgelands, trudging through overgrown paths by waterways, along eerie estuaries, across remote fields, sprawling cities, industrial waste/wonderlands and nowhere plains. Trail walking was something entirely different. And I loved it…
The next morning, we took a bus to Ballachulish. We dumped our bags at an empty guest house, run by a Northerner who’d moved to Scotland after a series of elongated pitstops all around the world. Ingrina wanted to check out the quarries. We walked around them, up hills, through woods and by rivers, derelict ruins along, empty, beautiful paths. We watched the sunset at Loch Leven. There were midges everywhere but the beautiful landscape made it so worthwhile.
Ingrina and I got to know each other well on the trip. We found about each other’s life journeys as well as our walking journeys. Adventures can often bring people together and connect them in a meaningful way.
The next day was our last, and we woke up before dawn, wandering back up to the hill over Loch Leven to watch the sunrise. There were clouds of midges everywhere; the reason we eventually left. We got the bus back to Fort William for the journey back to London. We were both sad that our journey was coming to an end and that we would be leaving the highlands behind.
Our trip was made up of a mismatch of well-used walking trails and lesser-known routes. Despite failing at what we set out to do, we still managed to get two routes reviewed, one verified and another two flagged for safety.
It was a brilliant first orientation and hopefully a prelude to many more adventures. I fully intend on going back to Scotland one day and walk not only more Slow Ways routes, but also the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way. Both trails snake through some of Scotland’s most beautiful areas.
In some ways, it was the most dreamy, and perfect adventure I’ve ever been on, despite the challenges. The Scottish Highlands are magical; I understand now, why they draw so many people in and keep people coming back. The people we met in Scotland were warm, kind and friendly. Although my first experience of wild camping wasn’t ideal, it opened my eyes to a wealth of walking possibilities and I felt a sense of freedom that I have never before experienced. I see the appeal of stopping and starting, setting up camp surrounded by nature, witnessing glorious sunsets and sunrises and feeling very much part of the landscape. I’m already planning my next trip!